• Monday 23rd September 2019

India’s new discreet diplomacy in South Asia

  • Published on: December 26, 2018


    The last two weeks have cooled nerves in Delhi and vindicated its new-found faith in discreet diplomacy as a better option than the initial muscular, jingoist approach of the Narendra Modi administration. This approach, pioneered by foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale and backed by the country’s intelligence community, involves ensuring India is not seen as taking sides in neighbouring countries, be prepared to deal with anyone coming to power through credible elections but also very guardedly backing long-time allies on critical occasions. But the message to long-time friends is unambiguous: India won’t win elections for you or back any non-credible exercise to keep someone in power at all costs.
    Maldives former strongman Yameen Abdul Gayoom, seen in Delhi as far too close to China for India’s liking, is out of power and the new dispensation headed by Ibrahim Mohammed Solih has made several strong pro-India gestures. Apart from saying India is the “closest neighbour” of Maldives, Solih has made Delhi the venue for his first foreign visit. He has promised to iron out “all differences” between his country and India that had widened during the Gayoom regime.
    Modi’s recent visit to Maldives signalled India’s total support for the Solih government and Solih’s return visit to meet Modi promised an end to Delhi’s woes in the island nation. Indian support to Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party has been determined but discreet, restricted to strong legal and political advice to fight the electoral and court battles, some cautious funding but never the heavy booted Big Brother approach. Solih cannot do away with China for obvious reasons but by questioning some of the China-funded projects has warmed hearts in Delhi.
    In Sri Lanka, India was caught napping when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe two months ago and announced his desire to make Mahinda Rajapaksa the new PM. Rajapaksa, seen in Delhi as a close Chinese surrogate, had blamed Indian intelligence for his defeat in the 2015 presidential polls. India’s RAW, he alleged, had caused a split in his ranks and the alliance of Sirisena and Ranil, that brought about his defeat. So Rajapksa’s sensational return to reckoning, sent Delhi into a tizzy as this was interpreted as a victory for Chinese manoeuvres backed by Beijing’s huge war-chest intelligence machinery.
    Ranil is somewhat like Sheikh Hasina – he is India’s most trusted ally on the island as the Bangladesh PM is in the east. At one point, as he mounted the political and legal challenge to his ouster, Wickremesinghe openly pushed for Indian intervention, but was told to have “full faith in Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions”. He was encouraged to mount a strong legal challenge backed by ceaseless political agitation on the streets and mobilisation for victory in the no-confidence motion against Rajapaksa. After 51 days of uncertainty, Wickremesinghe was reinstated as PM after Rajapaksa was forced to resign following two Supreme Court rulings that made it impossible for him to cling on to power. The no-confidence motion against Rajapaksa turned the tide in Wickremesinghe’s favour.
    Chinese ambassador Cheng Xueyuan’s prompt call on Rajapaksa after the latter took over as PM let the cat out of the bag: the former president had remained Beijing’s favourite since he went ahead with a host of controversial Chinese projects and allowed Chinese submarines to use Sri Lankan ports. But as Rajapaksa failed to remain in his seat, China promptly publicly distanced itself from the former strongman and Chinese officials later blamed the “inexperience of ambassador Cheng Xueyuan” for meeting Rajapaksa during the Sri Lankan political turmoil.
    Beijing announced it was prepared to work with any leader in Sri Lanka who was in power. India has, however, discreetly retained links with Rajapaksa through BJP MP Subramaniam Swamy, who was instrumental in getting Modi to meet Rajapaksa when he was out of power. They ended in good “let bygone be bygone” spirits. This prepared Delhi for the worst-case scenario — in case Rajapaksa hung on to power.
    In both Maldives and Sri Lanka, Indian advice to Solih and Wickremesinghe helped swing the tide in their favour. But in both places, India had a covert link to Yameen and Rajapaksa in case they stayed on. This is a strategy based on discreet, apparently hands-off policy that Gokhale has put in place in the neighborhood since he took charge. This is also reflected in the cautious, yet clear support for Imran Khan’s Kartarpur Sahib corridor. National diplomacy cannot get entangled with either domestic political considerations or with any overt muscular approach and this is what Gokhale seems to have successfully managed to convince the bigwigs in the Modi administration. As a veteran China hand (he was ambassador to China), Gokhale has convinced his prime minister to go the whole hog with the Wuhan spirit and also ensure none of the regime change in the neighbourhood is linked to or seen as a manifestation of Sino-Indian rivalry for influence in South Asia.
    The publicity-shy foreign secretary may actually be crafting a new doctrine for Indian diplomacy in the neighourhood: a mix between the Gujral doctrine of absolute non-interference and Indira Gandhi’s policy of muscular intervention which many referred to as India’s Monroe Doctrine. Gokhale does not advocate abandoning India’s favourites among South Asian nations. Rather he is all for strongly backing them. But that backing is restricted to strong legal and political advice (in developing election campigns or political agitations) and perhaps some discreet funding and critical manoeuvring, but one that is totally deniable. There is no place for muscularity, no demonstrative hand-holding so that Delhi is always left with the option of even working with someone who is in power but not quite someone Delhi prefers.
    Gokhale’s strategy will be put to some test in Bangladesh during the December 30 parliament polls. In both Maldives and Sri Lanka, India’s friends held the moral high ground, battling against those seen as subverting democracy. As the world ‘s most populous and one of the most successful democracies, India finds it easy to support those fighting for democracy. In Bangladesh, its close relations with Sheikh Hasina jeopardises the high moral ground that India prefers. Because the West blames Hasina for trying to turn Bangladesh into a one-party state (some say one-leader state), India has a tough time convincing US and European nations that the “cause of regional stability” is furthered if Hasina stays in power. But in Bangladesh, the BJP-RSS combine has maintained a not-so-secret link with the BNP leadership, which has sent regular delegations to meet BJP leaders, including Amit Shah. These ties pushed the BNP to contest the polls and make it appear credible.
    The Indian message to Hasina is clear — we will back you for holding credible elections by getting the Opposition parties to participate. Suggestions from Delhi for fielding credible candidates who could win elections have largely gone unheeded as Hasina has preferred going to battle largely with sitting MPs, many with very low level of acceptability, or those who had won without a contest in the January 2014 polls. In some cases, where changes were made, a few big moneybags got ticket and some transparently bright and honest candidates were not given nomination.
    That celebrated medical personality Dr Prangopal Dutta and some other promising young leaders did not get nomination from the Awami League, has also not gone down well with Delhi because they saw in Dutta the potential to emerge as the big Hindu face in the party after the demise of Suranjeet Sengupta. So, Delhi’s line now is no more hand-holding: if Hasina can pull through the polls and make them appear credible, so much the better. If she fails to win, she must take the blame for poor candidate selection (in which money power has reportedly played a huge role) and Delhi will work with whosoever comes to power. But this would not mean working against Hasina, as had happened in 2001 during the Vajpayee administration.
    In fact, the Chinese have been given discreet messages that Hasina is good for regional stability and her victory is a win-win for both Beijing and Delhi because she will be crucial in translating the BCIM economic corridor connecting Kunming (in Yunnan province of China) with Kolkata into reality. In 2014, India and China were on the same page, backing Hasina and certifying the polls as a “constitutional necessity”. This time, Delhi hopes Beijing will see the reality. If this works, Gokhale’s strategy of befriending China and avoiding direct rivalry for influence in South Asia (India and China are supposed to execute a joint project in Afghanistan as per the Wuhan agreement) may work in helping Delhi’s trusted ally Sheikh Hasina stay in power. But if she is brought down by poor candidate selection and huge anti-incumbency, Delhi has other options at hand.


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